The Victory over Sichon and Og

  • Rav Michael Hattin

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

 

PARASHAT CHUKAT

 

The Victory over Sichon and Og

By Rabbi Michael Hattin

 

 

Introduction

 

Parashat Chukat, midway through Sefer Bamidbar, constitutes the chronological turning point of the Book.  The Parasha begins with a lengthy description of the mysterious rites of the Red Heifer, a ceremony that restores a state of Tahara to an individual who has come in contact with corpse Tum'a.  The Red Heifer is burned along with cedar, hyssop and scarlet, the collected ashes are gathered and combined with spring water, and the mixture is sprinkled upon the petitioner on the third and seventh days.  Whatever the deeper meaning of this service, it is thematically significant, for it offers closure to the wilderness experience.  The generation that left Egypt, condemned to perish for its indiscretions and tainted with the drabness of death, takes its leave in this week's Parasha; with an unexpected suddenness, the generation poised to enter the Promised Land takes its place. 

 

In the fortieth and final year of the wanderings, as the people reach the arid wilderness of Zin, Miriam perishes, soon to be followed by her brother Aharon and eventually Moshe himself. The people of Israel, thirsty and impatient to embrace their new destiny, had cried out for water and relief, and Moshe and Aharon sought God's counsel.  These two brothers, who had faithfully led the people since the Exodus, are told by God to speak to the rock so that it might give water to the parched masses, but they impetuously abrogate God's command and strike it.  In consequence, they too are doomed to not enter the land of Canaan. 

 

The Demise of Israel's Leaders

 

The commentaries offer a surprising array of explanations for God's unexpectedly harsh decree against Moshe and Aharon, none of them entirely satisfactory.  But viewing the matter from a broader perspective, one can sense, if not justice, then at least some measure of balance to the troubling events.  The demise of Miriam, the death of Aharon, and the standing sentence against Moshe all attest to their inviolable connection to the people, for the threesome had exercised prominent leadership roles ever since Israel had chafed under the Egyptian yoke. 

 

Moshe and Aharon had at that time strengthened their flock's flagging spirits, had taken up the struggle to liberate them, and had exalted in their eventual triumph as Pharaoh finally relented and set them free.  Miriam, according to persistent traditions, had been instrumental in bringing forth their young, and had continued to encourage and inspire them at the banks of the Sea of Reeds.  The three had never been absent from the people's lives, had never been far from their cries, had mourned their failures and rejoiced in their accomplishments.  Moshe could legitimately claim (with some consternation), that he had been appointed as their "nursemaid," to gently carry the people in his arms to the land that God had sworn to their ancestors (see Bamidbar 11:12), and the other two could rightly share that assertion.  How then could they in good conscience part from the people, detachedly observe them be devoured by the unforgiving dust, and then jubilantly accompany their children to the land flowing with milk and honey?  Thus, the fate of the three is sealed.  Although guiltless of the people's crime of faithlessly embracing the report of the Spies, they too must perish, to remain forever with their hapless kin interred on the eastern side of the Jordan.

 

The Encounter with Sichon

 

The people, the new generation raised by God on the scarcity of the wilderness and on its promise, finally begin their relentless march to Canaan.  Skirting the territory of Edom, they encounter the hostile Canaanite King of Arad, who engages them in battle.  The people vanquish him, and approach the land of Moav.  Encamping at the wadi of Arnon, located midway along the length of the Dead Sea, they pause.  Beyond this imposing dry riverbed canyon had once stretched the Kingdom of Moav, but the Moavites had lost much of their ancestral territory to the menacing monarch that now exercised rule over these fertile lands: Sichon, the King of the Amorites.

 

This imposing figure had some time earlier swept forth out of the Trans-Jordanian highlands to seize Moavite territory, in a battle so fierce that it had been recorded by the balladeers of the day in lamenting stanzas brimming with exaggerated descriptions of Sichon's prowess: "The people (of Israel) traveled, and encamped beyond Arnon, in the wilderness past the border of the Amorites, for Arnon was the border of Moav, between Moav and the Amorites.  Therefore, it has been recorded in the Book of the Wars of the Lord: 'Vahev was taken by storm, as were the tributaries of the Arnon.  So too the rapids close by the dwelling of Ar, which are situated close by the border of Moav…'" (Bamidbar 21:13-15).

 

The Book of the Wars of the Lord

 

Offering a novel insight, the Ramban (13th century, Spain) explains that the so-called 'Book of the Wars of the Lord,' mentioned only here and presumed lost, was authored by the "wise men of those times, who would record the great battles, for such is the practice in every generation.  The authors of such works would be called 'Moshlim,' for they would employ the literary techniques of parable (MaShaL) and rhetoric.  They would ascribe victories, that to them appeared to be miraculous, to God, for such are truly His.  The prowess of Sichon against the Moavites was wondrous in their eyes and they therefore recorded it in this work.  They spoke of 'the storm' that Sichon had unleashed against the Moavite city of Vahev, against the towns that dwelt along the rapids of the Arnon…for God had destroyed it all in Sichon's sudden and violent onslaught" (commentary to 21:13).

 

Significantly, the Torah freely quotes from this otherwise obscure work, that at least for the Ramban is nothing more than a tract of 'secular' history devoted to descriptions of temporal rulers and their bloody military exploits.  At first glance, such a citing seems jarringly incongruous, with one Talmudic sage even having the audacity to exclaim that these "verses are worthy of being burned" (Talmud Bavli Chulin 60b)!  Nevertheless, the Torah records the words of these balladeers with good reason, for we shall see that their poetry sheds light on the entire theme of Parashat Chukat.

 

The Battle with Sichon

 

The people of Israel, now positioned at Sichon's gates, request permission to traverse his territory "neither turning off the main road to trample field or vineyard, nor drinking from his wells, but rather remaining on the highway until passing through" (Bamidbar 21:22).  Sichon, flushed with his recent victory over the Moavites and unconvinced of Israel's benign intentions, miscalculates terribly and ventures forth to engage them in battle in the wilderness at Yahatz.  "Israel vanquished him by the tip of the sword and inherited his territory, from the Arnon to the Yabok, to the land of Amon, for the border of the Ammonites was secure.  Israel took all of these cities and dwelt in all of the Amorite towns, in Cheshbon and its satellites.  For Cheshbon was the capital of Sichon King of the Amorites, who himself had battled the earlier King of Moav and seized his lands to the Arnon.  Therefore the balladeers ('Moshlim') say: 'come to Cheshbon, for Sichon's city shall be built and established.  A fire has gone forth from Cheshbon, a flame from Sichon's city, it has consumed Ar of Moav and the governors of Arnon's heights.  Woe is Moav, the people of Kemosh are lost, for he has rendered his sons refugees and given his daughters as captives to Sichon the Amorite King…" (Bamidbar 21:24-29).

 

Thus, the initial victory of Sichon over Moav had been so astounding, that the chroniclers of the day had described it as a 'storm,' and a 'fire' that had laid Moavite territory waste and established Sichon as the uncontested ruler of the region.  His expansive kingdom now extended along the entire upper half of the Dead Sea, continuing along the banks of the Jordan all the way up until the modern day Golan Heights, where it bounded the lands of his even more sinister kinsman, Og King of the Bashan.  Who could dare to dispute Sichon's ascendancy or to challenge his dominion?  Who would dare to cross his path without showing deference to his supremacy?

 

The Destiny of Israel

 

Enter Israel, the people of God, a nation never well known for its martial traditions or menacing military might.  Confronting Sichon's bellicose belligerence with a softly worded request for passage, they are summarily rebuffed and instead attacked with force.  In a showdown so often played out over the course of their drawn out and almost surreal history, the people of Israel remarkably prevail.  The regional superpower is toppled, his iron grip is broken, and the surrounding nations look on in disbelief. 

 

The Torah's decision to record the words of the balladeers is an emphatic declaration that Israel's history is unlike the history of any other nation.  It exists in a dimension that is only partially explicable in terms of power politics and global alliances, for its true destiny transcends them all.  When God wills it, Moses the Lawgiver trounces Sichon the Tyrant, the selfsame chieftain who had only a short time earlier dispensed with the respectable Kingdom of Moav as so much dry kindling.  When God wills it, neither the force of the Pharaoh nor the strength of Sichon, nor even the authority of Og can prevail.

 

"The people (of Israel) turned and headed northward by way of the Bashan, but Og the King of the Bashan sallied forth with all of his people to battle them at Edrei.  God said to Moshe 'Do not fear him, for I will give him and all of his people into your hand.  You shall do to him as you did to Sichon the King of the Amorites, who dwelt in Cheshbon.'  The people of Israel smote him and his sons and all of his people completely, leaving not a remnant, and they inherited his land…" (Bamidbar 21:33-35).

 

Of course, with the downfall of these two, the gates to Canaan were thrown wide open.  The Canaanite and Amorite city-states that dotted the lands west of the Jordan were thrown into a panic by the Israelite victory.  The triumphant words that the people had sung on the shores of the Sea of Reeds some forty years earlier, concerning the "trembling chieftains of Edom and Moav, the Canaanites who would melt from fright" (see Shemot 15:14-19), were now coming true, bolstered immeasurably by the Israelite triumph.  But all of it was for only one reason: that "God would rule forever and ever" (IBID).  The purpose of the Israelite victory was not to cross the Jordan in order to found an empire after the storied example of Sichon or Og, but rather to craft a state predicated upon the bedrock of the Torah, the principles of ethics and morality, the rule of God.

 

In the Biblical books, the remarkable victory over Sichon and Og looms very large.  Moshe refers to it in the Book of Devarim (2:31-3:17), Rachav, the Givonites and Yehoshua all recall it in reverent tones in the Book of Yehoshua (2:10, 9:10, 24:8), Yiftach the Judge mentions it as an expression of God's might (Shoftim/Judges 11:20-21), Yirmiyahu the prophet of the First Temple's destruction paraphrases it to predict Moav's imminent fall at the hands of the King of Babylon (Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 48:40-47), and Nechemia who is active at the end of the Biblical period mentions it to an audience that still remembers (Nechemia 9:22). 

 

The most famous reference of all, however, is that of the Psalmist who sings of the victory over Sichon and Og as part of the Great Song of Thanksgiving preserved in Tehillim 136:19-20:

 

"He guided His people

through the wilderness,                  for His mercy endures forever.

He smote great kings,                                 for His mercy endures forever.

He killed mighty kings,                    for His mercy endures forever.

Sichon King of the Amorites,         for His mercy endures forever.

Og King of the Bashan,                  for His mercy endures forever.

He gave their land as an

inheritance,                                       for His mercy endures forever.

An inheritance for his

servant Israel,                                              for His mercy endures forever.

He remembered us in our

lowliness,                                          for His mercy endures forever.

He redeemed us from our

oppressors,                                       for His mercy endures forever.

He gives food to all flesh,               for His mercy endures forever.

Praise the Lord of the Heavens,   for His mercy endures forever!"

 

Sichon and Og in Context

 

Within the narratives of Parashat Chukat, the battles against Sichon and Og must be understood as the convincing demolition of the attitude of the Spies.  Their defeatist stance had been wholeheartedly endorsed by the victors' parents, the generation of the Exodus, in their mistaken belief that they were too weak to ever prevail against the Canaanite armies.  The generation nurtured in the wilderness, imbued with trust in God's providence and confidence in His help, are abruptly introduced in this week's Parasha, and just as suddenly and surprisingly prevail against the Amorite Kings. 

 

A Talmudic tradition that on surface reading seems to belong to the genre of the fantastic, captures their astounding transformation: "Og the King of Bashan uprooted a mountain three Persian miles square, lifted it over his head, and prepared to throw it upon the people of Israel.  The Holy One blessed be He brought 'kamtze' (ants?) that chewed a hole in it, and the stone instead lodged around his neck.  When Og attempted to lift it off of his neck, his teeth were extended in either direction and he was unable to do so!" (Talmud Bavli Berakhot 54a-b).  Here we have all of the trappings of a fairytale: an imposing giant, his nefarious scheme, and the unexpected appearance of tiny, seemingly powerless creatures that in the end bring about the titan's utter downfall as his threatening incisors are magically neutralized.

 

A Closer Reading of the Talmudic Tale

 

It is the identity of the mysterious 'kamtze' that is most intriguing.  This word is often translated as 'ants,' but in proper Aramaic the word actually signifies 'grasshoppers,' the very same creatures whose swarms can decimate fields laden with harvest and reduce them to stubble.  In the context of the wilderness narratives, however, the 'grasshopper' has a more innocuous connotation, for it expresses a notion of minuscule insignificance and associated feebleness: "The Spies spoke to the people of Israel disparagingly of the land that they had toured.  They said: 'the land that we have traversed is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all of the people who dwell there are of fantastic proportions.  There we saw the primeval giants, the children of Anak of the 'Nefilim.'  We were as grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so were we in theirs as well!" (Bamidbar 13:32-33). 

 

In effect, the Talmud's tale relates a much more profound truth.  The people of Israel, who as freshly freed slaves had perceived themselves as helpless Lilliputians incapable of exercising will or confronting destiny, were proverbial grasshoppers, just as the Spies had perceptively remarked.  Forty years later, however, a new generation was poised to enter the land, to finally slay the proverbial giants that had laid their ancestors low.  Og the King of Bashan was not only a colossus in the corporeal sense, but also a looming reminder of the people's earlier insecurities and inability to trust in God's salvation.  This time, though, the 'grasshoppers' miraculously prevail, and remarkably ensnare the ominous Amorite king.

 

Lest there be any doubt concerning this reading, two lines of evidence support it.  Firstly, the Aramaic translation of the verse in Bamidbar expressing the Spies' insecurities reads 'We were as grasshoppers in our own eyes' as 'keKimtzin,' the same word as the passage in the Talmudic legend.  Secondly, Og is the only Biblical figure described as one of the primeval giants (see Devarim 3:11), just as the Spies had described all of the land's inhabitants, for he is an archetype for their invincibility.

 

In many ways, then, Parashat Chukat serves as the turning point of Sefer Bamidbar, for in its narratives the people of the Exodus and their leaders pass on, to be substituted by their more resilient and faithful offspring.  Israel emerges as a people ready to settle its land, to exercise its national will, and to prevail.  How much there is for us to learn from its transformation!

 

Shabbat Shalom